Wednesday, July 29, 2009

Nashville jury rejects associational harassment claim

If a white employee stands up for her black co-workers, and is then ostracized and called racially-charged names because of it, is she entitled to compensation for the alleged harassment? According to one Nashville jury, the answer is no.

In Barrett v. Whirlpool Corp. (6th Cir. 2/23/09), the 6th Circuit determined that an employee cannot pursue a claim for retaliation based solely upon a relationship to a co-worker who engages in protected activity. The court also remanded for trial the racial harassment claim of one of the plaintiffs, Treva Nickens. She claimed that after she spoke out in favor of black co-workers who had filed a race discrimination suit against Whirlpool, she faced routine racist slurs and graffiti (such as being called a “nigger lover”), was told that she should stay with her own kind, was disciplined more harshly than whites, and was passed over for a promotion. According to The Tennessean, the jury rejected Nickens’ associational harassment claim.

Despite the jury’s verdict on the specific facts presented by Nickens, the law remains that harassment as a result of one’s association with or advocacy for protected employees is just as unlawful as harassment directed at a member of a protected class.

Even though Whirlpool escaped liability in this case, employers should not read this verdict as a license to permit harassment against employees associated with employees in a protected class. Employers must treat all allegations and complaints of harassment seriously. Investigations should be timely and thoroughly completed. Policies should be reviewed and reinforced. Appropriate corrective action should in instituted where warranted.

Presented by Kohrman Jackson & Krantz, with offices in Cleveland and Columbus.

For more information, contact Jon Hyman, a partner in our Labor & Employment group, at (216) 736-7226 or